How Great Change Leaders use Stakeholder Agility
In today’s business environment, leading change has become an integral part of a manager’s job. It’s also become more challenging. One of the biggest challenges is gaining sustained commitment from those whose support we need to be successful. This post is about a particular kind of leadership agility we need to lead change effectively: “stakeholder agility.” What is it? What practical advice can we glean from research on how highly agile leaders use this capability?
Stakeholder agility has two components that work together. We need to hone both of them. The first is “stakeholder awareness.” If we have a clear vision of the change we want to lead, it’s tempting to jump right in. After all, we need to move quickly in today’s world, right? Right … and if our project’s going to have the impact we want, we will inevitably need the support of other people and groups. Very few changes can be made by yourself alone and truly succeed.
So, how to gain the support we need? If we’re clear about why the change is needed, as well as its overall scope and intended outcomes, then of course, we need to articulate our vision in a clear and compelling way. But building support doesn’t come from articulating a vision alone. To gain the support of your key stakeholders, you need to take into account their perspective on your change project. What are their fears and concerns? What’s in it for them? How would this change make their lives better?
To build your stakeholder awareness, you first need to identify who they are. Not a list of several dozen groups who might be in some way remotely impacted, but the key stakeholders – the people and groups whose commitment and support is most needed, or whose potential negative attitudes you want to influence, so they won’t inhibit or derail the change. At the same time, ask yourself: Am I leaving someone off this list who really is an important stakeholder? Many times our clients wind up being glad they asked that question.
Before you swing into action to influence your stakeholders, assess their current attitudes toward your change project and then determine what their attitudes need to be for the change to have the support it needs. Often, our assessment of how our stakeholders will react is largely a guess. Treat your guess as a working hypothesis and do what you can find out where they really are. What do they like about your ideas? What are their concerns? Do they have any feedback? Any advice on how to navigate the culture? This will help you get clearer on where gaps remain between the support you have and the support you need.
When you have pretty good awareness of how key stakeholders view your change idea, the other part of stakeholder agility is closing those gaps – creating greater alignment and support. This isn’t a once-and-done thing. Obviously, building a critical mass of support at the outset makes a big difference. But stakeholder alignment is something you’ll need to attend to throughout the life of your project.
I’ve found that different managers have different ways of going about this. Using their insight about what’s in it for their stakeholders, they rev up their ability to advocate and persuade. Others use a more inclusive approach – they get lots of input, feeling their stakeholders will be more supportive if they experience a greater sense of involvement.
Either approach can work, at least to a certain extent. However, stakeholders often try to read your internal reactions to what they have to say. Whether you show them what’s in it for them, or you invite their input, they will be wondering: Do you already have your mind fully made up about the change that’s needed, or are you open to being influenced by their views?
Creating alignment is a fine art. True alignment is rarely comes about because only the other person changes their mind. Sometimes changing our own mind a little is part of what’s needed to create alignment. In fact, the most agile leaders I’ve worked with and studied don’t just look for buy-in from their stakeholders. Realizing that no one can know everything, they’re also on the look-out for ways that others’ ideas might make their own thinking even better.
When you’re leading an organizational change effort, it’s important to know the areas where you’re genuinely open to input and those where you’re mind is really made up. The most effective change leaders can be articulate about where they are open to being influenced and where, frankly, they are not. This approach takes self-awareness and mental agility. But it creates greater trust and is more conducive to genuine dialog, which is often what’s needed to get the solid support and commitment you need.
What if you don’t have time for all this “stakeholder agility” stuff? What an IT manager told me awhile back is something I hear all too often. She was a key leader for a change initiative that was foundering because she and her team had not adequately engaged with the project’s stakeholders. They’d felt they just didn’t have time for it. But plunging ahead had caused significant project delays and had reinforced a siloed culture and already strained relationships. Better to take a deep breath and tune into those pesky stakeholders!